20th Anniversary of 9/11: Factual Powerhouses Find New Perspectives

Twenty years ago on September 11, terrorist attacks on American soil took the lives of thousands and injured thousands more, altered the lives of millions and shook the world. Marking the anniversary of the tragic day, commemorating those lost and recognizing its heroes and survivors, are a number of new factual titles that promise to resonate with viewers around the globe.

“9/11 programming has been a core part of the HISTORY brand for the past 20 years,” says Eli Lehrer, executive VP and head of programming at The HISTORY Channel. “For the 20th anniversary, it was hugely important for us to continue that tradition, but do it in a bigger way that recognizes the importance of this particular anniversary. We have approached the story from four very different perspectives.”

***Image***9/11: Four Flights tells the personal stories of the passengers who were on the four different hijacked flights—two of which crashed into the Twin Towers, one into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and the last in a field in Pennsylvania, which is believed to have been en route to the White House or the U.S. Capitol. Rise and Fall: The World Trade Center delves into the engineering achievement of the towers themselves, as well as their shocking destruction. Primarily told through found footage, 9/11: I Was There is structured around the personal narratives of people present on that day. Lastly, 9/11: The Legacy tells the stories of resilience of those people who were children on the day and how the tragedy impacted them.

Two years ago, HISTORY tackled the event from the perspective of Air Force 1 and the people who were on it, while last year the network returned to the story of the Pentagon.

“With an event that has been covered every year and documented to the degree 9/11 was, every year it’s about what can we add to the story, what is a new perspective we can bring,” explains Lehrer, adding that this year, HISTORY thought that “delving into the details of the heroism and the experiences of the people on the planes was something we hadn’t done. The engineering narrative is a story we hadn’t told in a long time and certainly haven’t told this way, with the new information that’s out there and the ability to visualize that story. It’s the same question we ask ourselves each anniversary, just on a larger scale because it’s the 20th anniversary.”

Also providing content from multiple perspectives on 9/11 for this anniversary year is PBS, which wanted to home in on the event and its aftermath. “There are reminders to everybody of what happened and honoring the loss that was felt that day by telling those stories, but we also wanted to look at how people have dealt with the aftermath,” explains Bill Gardner, VP of programming and development at PBS. “We’re trying to take a full-view picture of the impact that these events had in the States and globally—not just then but ever since, since the world obviously changed forever as a result of it.”

Among the new titles that PBS has premiered for the anniversary is Generation 9/11, which follows seven young people whose fathers died on 9/11 while they were in their mothers’ wombs and what their lives are like as they enter adulthood. The FRONTLINE specials In the Shadow of 9/11 and America After 9/11 tell the story of an FBI sting in Miami that led to a terror prosecution and how four presidents responded to the attack and the fear it fostered, respectively.

“When these huge events take place, they have multiple impacts,” says Gardner. “There’s the immediate event, there’s the immediate response and there’s what comes after the repercussions to the repercussions, so to speak. We thought it was really important to tell the story in the round. History isn’t a story of just single moments or events; it’s really understanding the impact of these single moments and events, how broadly they relate to the rest of the world and to culture.”

The 9/11 terrorist attacks, while they occurred in America, reverberated across the globe. “9/11 is one of the biggest global events that has happened in our lifetimes that has had effects that have influenced the whole world,” says Carolyn Payne, executive producer at National Geographic, which is premiering the six-part limited series 9/11: One Day In America. Made in collaboration with the 9/11 Memorial and Museum, it covers the events of the day in-depth as told by first responders and the people in the towers who survived.

“The story is told in a very modern way using only archive footage, music and the testimony of those who were there,” says Payne. “There is no narrator and no interviews with any experts or historians. The series has been three years in the making. What is different and special about this 9/11 series is the extraordinary depth we go into. We go through the day blow by blow and give the survivors the time to tell their incredible stories. The effect of having no narrator means that you feel totally immersed in the archive and feel like you’re in the moment.”

Payne believes that part of what makes a series like 9/11: One Day in America reach international audiences is its stories of acts of bravery and selflessness and how they offer an even greater narrative window into human nature.

Echoing Payne’s point, HISTORY’s Lehrer says, “The documentaries we’ve done that have resonated most have been the documentaries that remind people of the heroism, the sacrifice, the resilience of people on that day. We’ve certainly done other documentaries that have taken on different themes and parts of the narrative, but I think people come to us for and the documentaries that resonate most are the documentaries that are really about the personal narratives and the reminders of, even in the midst of tragedy, people’s capacity for bravery, for resilience, those sorts of themes.”

Another factor that plays into 9/11 content’s relevance around the world is that while the U.S. was ground zero for the tragedy, its rippling effects were felt across the continents.

“The reaction to the attacks was felt globally,” points out PBS’s Gardner. “We’re just pulling out of Afghanistan now. That was a result of 9/11. Oftentimes, when great powers have something happen to them, how they react is as impactful as the event that caused it all. I don’t think anyone would argue that 9/11 didn’t have a global impact because the entire world was impacted by what happened.”

As Mirjam Strasser, head of sales and acquisitions at Autentic Distribution, puts it, “The whole Western culture was attacked by what happened on 9/11. The reaction of Western culture—especially of the U.S.—has then, of course, strongly influenced other cultures, especially those of the Middle East. And that’s why the topic is so relevant worldwide.” From Autentic’s catalog, the documentary In Search of Monsters tells the story of Mohamedou Slahi, a formerly alleged terrorist, focusing on the War on Terror and questioning the ethics of certain interrogation strategies.

“In order to find new aspects, one has to break out of the rigid patterns of thought that are formed by the media and their reception of the events,” says Strasser, explaining how an event like 9/11 can be explored from new avenues two decades later. “Only then can one change the point of view and discover new stories that may not be directly related to the actual events, but to their effects. And then you have a story that captivates and brings to light a new truth.”

With the 20-year anniversary this year, a slew of new stories about 9/11 and its aftermath are being told. The Smithsonian Channel is marking the event with a week-long tribute that was launched on Monday with the all-new documentary series Ten Steps to Disaster: Twin Towers. BBC One and Apple TV+ partnered for 9/11: Inside the President’s War Room, which tells the story of 12 hours in the Bush administration on the day, with first-hand testimony from former President George W. Bush. Spike Lee’s NYC Epicenters 9/11→ 2021½, a WarnerMedia, HBO Documentary Films production in association with 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks, chronicles life and survival in New York City from the terrorist attacks to the Covid-19 crisis. 9/11: From the Ground Up, from Brook Lapping Productions in co-production with ITV and France Télévisions, centers on the bystanders who caught the tragic events on camera.

Anniversary programs at large have become more prominent in the factual landscape in recent years, a trend that PBS’s Gardner attributes to how history and its place in time has seemed to have gotten tighter in the modern era.

“We’ve all seen these things like: the distance between 1980 and 1939 is the same distance between 1939 and today, and it blows your mind,” Gardner explains. “So much is happening with all the media that exists now, everything is shot in HD, there’s social media. There’s an interest in anniversary programming because it kind of sharpens and focuses on the world we live in today.”

At HISTORY, while a variety of momentous anniversaries for national and global events find their way onto the slate, it’s only the anniversary of 9/11 that is assured coverage every year. “9/11 is really the one event where we mark it on the calendar,” says Lehrer. “And we know every single year that we need to do something.”